History always has an alternative ending

Jon Deery on modern anti-intellectualism and how it should be countered

Jon Deery
12th May 2021
Image: National Portrait Gallery
America has had four years of an American president who sincerely suggested the injection of bleach as a medical procedure. In Britain, we’re currently living under a prime minister who – for the first few years of his public life – was best known to most as the butt of the joke on Have I Got News For You. It's safe to say we’ve grown rather used to a political climate that’s less about who’s got the best policy ideas and more about who can hold our attention for the longest. But how did we get here, and have things ever really been that different?

During the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove made a statement that caused a great outcry in Britain:

“People have had enough of experts.”

Michael Gove on Sky News in 2016: "People have had enough of experts".

But perhaps, given the state of our politicians and our political discourse, he was right. A 2020 survey found that a quarter of people in Britain believe in QAnon-linked conspiracy theories, with 42% of 25-34 year-olds thinking there is “a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together” regardless of who is in government.

We shouldn’t dismiss these “anti-intellectual” conspiracy theories as completely wrong, misguided and racist, as they often are. In fact, the idea that a single group of elites are really in charge of our political leaders is given more weight every time a secret lobbying scandal is reported on, or by the sheer influence that individual media moguls like Rupert Murdoch have on our democracy

Fear drives a belief in conspiracy theories, and disbelief in academic thinking and science in general. Fear of complete powerlessness in a system that does not listen to you. Because what’s the point in thinking if your ideas won’t make a difference anyway? Conspiracy theories encourage believers to focus on their fear, while discouraging them from thinking critically about its origins.

According to an Ipsos MORE report in 2020 about how much faith British people place in scientists, “those from social class C2DE (the less affluent) and non-graduates tend to be less positive and less trusting than the middle classes and graduates respectively”. Those who have the least say in a system that favours the rich also have the least faith in academics.

Throughout British history, that fear has been exploited by right-wing politicians via racism. Because, if people blame Jews or ill-defined “elites” for their unjust lot, instead of the inherently imbalanced economic system, then any actions that they take to get revenge, however brutal, will never be able to challenge the actual status quo.

A portrait of Edmund Burke by James Northcote
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Edmund Burke (1729-1797), an Anglo-Irish philosopher and statesman spent his political career convincing people that all the major decisions should be left up to “men of great civil and great military talents” (the rich), and that the poor should accept their place in society simply as ‘the way things are’. He championed the virtues of ‘common sense’ over abstract theoretical thinking.

In the words of Oliver Kamm of Prospect magazine: “according to Burke, you’re allowed freedom of worship and assembly, and it’s ungrateful and insubordinate to expect political rights as well.”

Burke was also an anti-Semite who viewed Jewish people’s presence in Britain as a threat to Britain’s national solidarity.

The cover of a 2008 Margaret Thatcher biography: “There Is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters” by Claire Berlinski. This shows how well the T.I.N.A. mantra defined Thatcher’s neoliberal economic views.
Image: Wikipedia

More recently than Burke, Margaret Thatcher used a similar justification for why we shouldn’t bother ourselves too much about thinking critically about our political system: “there is no alternative”. That phrase originated in the works of Herbert Spencer, who also provided the philosophical groundwork for eugenics.

Around the same time, Francis Fukuyama announced that we’d arrived at the “end of history”, meaning that neoliberalism was so brilliant that no other system could possibly be considered ever again.

When all forms of alternative society are rejected out of hand by those in positions of authority, democracy is threatened. Because what’s the point in debate if there is no alternative?

It’s exactly this kind of thinking that makes individuals feel powerless in the face of history, which leads to anti-intellectualism, and simultaneously leads to racist scapegoating. The three are inseparable.

For as long as the Conservatives remain in power (or as long as their wealthy friends remain in power, depending on how cynical you are), Britain’s politicians will encourage the idea of there being no alternative. They will continue to push anti-democratic policies like the new policing bill, and characterise those seeking alternatives as criminals who disrupt the otherwise peaceful social order.

The solution is simple, but much bigger than getting rid of the Conservatives. It is to fight for a more democratic society, hard enough and publicly enough so that everyone can see, plain as day, that there is a point to critical thinking.

We should reach a point where the only common wisdom is that there’s no such thing as “common sense”, that in a society of infinitely varied individuals, all offering their unique perspectives on the challenges of our time, there is always an alternative.

At least, that’s where I’d like us to end up. Unless you can think of something better…

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